Mushrooms are an excellent food and delicacy in many cultures across the world. They are a good source of protein, low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free, gluten-free, and contain several important nutrients. Three sisters found an opportunity in satisfying the growing demand for mushrooms in their home country and have built a thriving business that supplies fresh and dried mushrooms to supermarket chains, restaurants and hotels in Harare, Zimbabwe. Raised on a farm, Kundai, Eleanor and Rumbidzai have combined their skills, experiences, passion and love for farming and entrepreneurship to create an enviable partnership. I am super-excited to share it with you! Agribusiness is creating a formidable breed of successful entrepreneurs across Africa. This is one success story that will surely leave you inspired…
Soko Mushrooms: How It All Started…
I am Eleanor. I co-founded Soko Mushrooms in Ruwa, Zimbabwe in February 2012 with my sisters and partners, Rumbidzai and Kundai. ‘Soko’ actually means ‘monkey’ (in Shona, our local language). It’s our family’s totem. Since we are a family business, we thought our cheeky totem would best represent our brand.
Farming and business are part of our DNA. Both our parents are entrepreneurs, as was our late paternal grandfather who was a commercial farmer and entrepreneur since the early 1950s. Growing up on the family farm, our parents encouraged us to help out and instilled in us a deep sense of hard work and self-reliance. We grew up growing our own vegetable gardens, milking the cows and feeding the chickens and pigs.
When Kundai graduated from college in the USA at the end of 2011, she immediately got on a plane and returned home to Zimbabwe to begin work as an entrepreneur. She came armed with knowledge of organic farming and the desire to start her own farming business.
When she arrived, she found our family farm in disarray. It was overgrown with weeds and operating way below capacity. She shared her business idea with Rumbidzai and I, and asked us to partner with her in the new venture. We all agreed and used the same roll-up-your-sleeves, can-do attitude we had fostered as young girls growing up on the family farm. We registered our company and got to work!
It took us some time to define our roles. I had worked in agricultural development and trade policy in the US and already started my own company in Mali. Given my experience, it made sense for me to focus on the strategy for Soko. Rumbidzai had been working for our family convenience store retail business. Since she had a clear understanding of business regulations in Zimbabwe and had relationships with wholesalers, she naturally focused on finance and marketing. Kundai was the most interested and skilled in mushroom farming so she focused on operations and outreach.
We knew early on that we needed to do some market research, and not just follow what most people were doing which was to grow whatever was popular at the time. We visited research institutions, supermarkets, wholesalers and nurseries, and asked a lot of questions. Through our research we realized that most of the mushrooms available in Zimbabwe were being imported which gave us an opportunity to supply mushrooms locally. Capitalizing on the fact that mushrooms are highly perishable, we found local buyers who were willing to buy from us.
To gain additional expertise in mushroom farming, Kundai enrolled in an intensive mushroom growing course. We also bought plenty of books, watched videos and hired a consultant to provide additional technical services. We used our savings to purchase mushroom growing equipment; hire staff, build grow houses and a packing shed.
We faced some delays early on since we had limited capital to run the business, and we were also working on it part-time. In December 2013, Kundai decided that the best way we were going to move forward was to have someone dedicated full time to the business. She quit her banking job to go full time into farming.
Over the last two years we have transformed Soko Mushrooms from an idea to a thriving business. We currently supply major supermarkets in Harare with fresh and dried button and oyster mushrooms, and recently added mushroom spices to our list of value-added mushroom products.
Following a number of requests from aspiring mushroom farmers, we recently launched a mushroom training school to provide training and support to new farmers. We want to continue to grow and sell mushrooms to the rest of the country.
“Our vision is to reignite the Zimbabwe agriculture sector by creating livelihoods and jobs.”
Why Are Mushrooms Such A Viable Business Opportunity?
There are a number of reasons why we believe mushrooms, particularly oyster and button mushrooms, are a viable business opportunity for new farmers. And if you don’t know anything about mushrooms, don’t worry. Later in this article, I’ll describe the two major types of mushrooms (oysters and buttons) and how to farm them.
So from our knowledge and hard-earned experience in the business, here are four reasons why we believe mushrooms are a very viable opportunity for African entrepreneurs.
#1 They grow on available waste
The beauty of mushrooms, particularly gourmet (oyster) mushrooms, is that they are grown on available agricultural waste such as wheat straw and chicken manure. Agricultural waste is readily available in most places, and is usually burned or wasted. Mushrooms provide the option to recycle waste and create something valuable. Also, we use the waste from growing our mushroom as compost for growing other crops such as our sweet potatoes.
#2 They do not require much space to grow
Mushrooms are an ideal specialty crop for small-scale farmers, because they can be grown indoors and do not require arable land to grow. This means that farmers with limited land can grow them (even in urban areas), and farmers with land can grow them in addition to other crops.
#3 They produce a high return per square foot
Mushrooms produce a very high return per square foot. Oyster mushrooms are especially productive, and can produce up to 25 pounds per square foot of growing area every year.
#4. They provide an alternative source of income and nutrition.
Mushrooms provide an option to diversify and earn additional income for farmers who typically grow a single crop like maize (corn), cassava, rice etc. They also provide good alternative source of protein which does not require much land.
Where Do We Sell Our Mushrooms?
Good question! We sell our button and oyster mushrooms to supermarket chains, restaurants and hotels in Harare (the capital). It is generally much easier to sell mushrooms in major cities and tourist resorts than in rural areas. You get better prices from selling at retail. We have not focused on the export market yet, because we have yet to fully meet the local demand.
Want To Know How We Grow Our Mushrooms? Let’s Teach You A Few Things!
There are primarily two types of mushrooms that are grown in Zimbabwe and most African countries; these are oyster and button mushrooms.
How to grow oyster mushrooms
Step 1: Oyster mushrooms grow on inexpensive and locally available materials such as straw, sugar cane bagasse, spent hops and cottonseed hulls. First the substrate (growing medium) is pasteurized.
Step 2: The pasteurized substrate is then inoculated (mixed) with the spawn (seed), packed into growing bags and incubated in growing rooms (mushroom houses).
Step 3: During the incubation and fruiting stages, the moisture and humidity is closely monitored. Strict hygiene must always be followed during the growing process.
Oyster mushrooms take about 4 weeks from incubation to harvest. It is important to get mushrooms to market as soon as possible since oyster mushrooms are highly perishable.
How to grow button mushrooms
Step 1: For button mushrooms, this is the composting/substrate production phase. It is usually the most time-consuming and also most important stage as it determines the rest of the growing cycle. The ingredients, such as straw, maize (corn) cobs and chicken manure, are composted. This can be done either mechanically or manually depending on the available resources on the farm.
Step 2: This step involves spawning, a process where the spawn (seed) is mixed with the substrate (compost/manure). The combination is then put into the climate-controlled growing houses (mushroom houses) where the substrate is cased with casing material and closely monitored for humidity and temperature.
Step 3: Small mushrooms start pinning and then grow into caps. The whole farming process takes about 12 weeks from composting to full maturity. After which the mushrooms are then hand harvested in about 3-4 flushes (breaks).
The 3 Biggest Lessons We Have Learned On Our Business Journey
Every business has its lessons and we have surely had some on our journey so far. Because we now have the privilege to look back on our actions, we can see some of the things we did well and didn’t do quite as well. If we had to start again, these are the three main things we would watch out for…
- Start quickly
We wasted a lot of time trying to build all our grow rooms at once. We spent too much time waiting for the perfect time to get started. In hindsight, I believe we should have started earlier with a minimum viable product get it in front of potential buyers. This would have helped us get to the next level faster.
- Have a good team of people who love what they do
We learned the importance of having a good team that you love to work with. This has helped us weather the highs and lows of mushroom farming.
- Stay focused and keep your head up
We learned that you need to stay focused and remember that you make your own luck. Starting a new business requires the willingness to take risks. You always have to stay positive in the face of adversity.
Our Top 7 Tips and Advice For Aspiring Mushroom Entrepreneurs
Experience, as they say, is the best teacher. I totally agree. If you’re reading this and would like to venture into mushroom farming, these are our own top 7 tips and advice for you. By following them, you’re very likely to increase the chances of succeeding in the mushroom farming business. Here they are:
- Start small: this will help you address the challenges of growing a new crop, like mushrooms.
- Plan, but understand that things will take longer than you think; you have to be patient and love what you are doing.
- Identify your market before you get started, and secure contracts if that is an available option. Mushrooms are a highly perishable product so you need to know who you are going to sell to before you even get started.
- Use good, healthy spawn (seeds) and compost. You can ask other mushroom farmers for recommendations to avoid wasting money on poor quality inputs.
- Prepare for challenges like power outages (in our case) which will impact your business if you are growing button mushrooms.
- Network with other farmers, in-person and online: farming can be lonely at times, and meeting other farmers, even farmers that are not growing mushrooms will help you share ideas and discover new markets.
- Get quality training: while mushrooms are relatively easy to grow, they also require technical know-how. Investing in good training for your staff will help with limiting production challenges such as low production and contamination.
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